Section 2. The challenges of innovation There is a method for innovation > The challenges of innovation

2. The challenges of innovation

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, was asked, "How do you systematize innovation?" (a common question among CEOs and the business community). His answer was, "You don't." [##] This was not what readers of Business Week expected to hear, but foolish questions often receive disappointing answers. It's as absurd a question as asking how to control weather or herd cats, because those approximate the lack of control and number of variables inherent in innovation. Jobs, or any CEO, might have a system for trying to manage innovation, or a strategy for managing the risks of new ideas, but that's a far cry from systematizing something. I wouldn't call anything with a 50% failure rate a system, would you? The Boeing 777 has jet engines engineered for guaranteed 99.99% reliability—now that's a system and a methodology. It's true that innovation is riskier than engineering, but that doesn't mean we should use words like system, control, or process so casually.


A better question, one with useful answers, is: what challenges do innovations face? While success is unpredictable, the challenges can be identified and used as excellent tools. Any successful innovation can be studied for how those challenges were overcome, and any innovation in progress can be managed with those challenges in mind.

In this chapter's second swoop through the innovations of all time, I've categorized the eight challenges innovations confront.

  1. Find an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere: concentrated thinking, daydreaming, personal problems, observations of others, a coincidence, or the result of studying something in the world (see Chapter 6). The idea could be for a problem you want to solve or merely for an experiment you want to follow (hoping the problem it solves will surface later—a scenario often mocked as a "solution in search of a problem").

  2. Develop a solution. The idea is one thing; a working solution is another. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a helicopter in the 1500s, but it would be centuries before developments in aerodynamics and engines would make even a working prototype possible. Execution demands more effort than idea generation, and it's difficult to know how much more until you try. When developing something new, technologies, bank accounts, and people all have a surprising tendency to disappoint, sending humbled innovators back for variations of challenge #1: many smaller ideas need to be found to enable the big idea. Or, the idea is narrowed to make development possible.

  3. Sponsorship and Funding. How will you fund the project, including #2? If you work for someone else, you'll need permission or political influence. The management of innovation—in an MBA sense—is finding, managing, and satisfying sponsors, or positioning an innovation within their political climate and objectives. If you're independent, you'll need investors or bank loans, and you must complete enough of #2 to convince them you're worthy of their support.

  4. Reproduction. It's difficult to scale something: you might design a better mousetrap, but can you manufacture 50,000 cheaply enough to profit? It's a different challenge to make thousands of something than it is to make one. Software and new technologies are appealing to innovators because they ease many reproduction challenges (DVDs are cheap to reproduce, as are web sites or servers), but they face issues of scale: having enough bandwidth, speed, or services to satisfy customers.

  5. Reach your potential customer. An idea is not an innovation until it reaches people. Some trivialize this by calling it marketing, but the truth is that many innovations fail because they never reach the people they're designed for. Great innovations have been lost for decades, recovered only when someone found a way to bring them to the right people. The wheel, the steam engine, and freeze-dried foods were innovations that existed before 100 BCE, but it took centuries for innovators to position each of them in ways the average person could use. Lost Discoveries, by Dick Teresi, details dozens of innovations lost to civilization for generations—failures of marketing and communication more so than technology.

  6. Beat your competitors. While you're working hard at #1–5, you won't be alone. Steve Jobs (Apple) was not the only maker of personal computers. Bill Gates (Microsoft) did not have the only operating system. Jeff Bezos ( did not have the first online bookstore. The opportunity seen by every successful innovator is visible to others, and those who succeed always leave competitors in their wake. Every breakthrough, at any time, is chased by dozens of talented and motivated people—the wise innovator keeps an eye on his peers' work for purposes of collaboration, inspiration, or tactical recognizance.

  7. Timing. As great as your idea is, will the culture be ready when it's finished? Revolutionary ideas can be too much change for people to handle. Innovations often need to be explained in terms of the status quo, which is why automobiles are rated in horsepower and electric lights in candles. The risk is that a sufficiently advanced idea, regardless of how it's positioned, won't match the interests or concerns of the moment. Timing is also a factor: what news will break on the day you announce your innovation? What components needed to finish your innovation are delivered late? What will other players and competitors do on the day you launch?

  8. Keep the lights on. While you're dealing with all the innovation fun above, the bills will keep coming. Being an innovator doesn't give you a "get out of other obligations free" card.